Chachapoyas is the unlikely capital of the Amazonas region in Peru. Unlikely because it isn’t actually in the Amazon Rainforest, it is located in the Cordillera, and doesn’t feel remotely Amazonic! Chachapoyas itself is a quaint town, with white painted buildings and colonial architecture. There isn’t much to ‘do’ in the town, but it is ideally situated to explore the surrounding treasures.
Way off the usual tourist route up the Peruvian coast, Chachapoyas isn’t the most accessible place either. 12 hours by bus from Trujillo, around 8 hours from Chiclayo, and 22 hours from Lima, travel time is one obvious reason why few tourists make the journey here. But those who do are rewarded with spectacular scenery, ancient ruins at Kuelap, bizarre burial sites and the awe-inspiring Gocta waterfall. Sadly I lost almost all my photos when my laptop & camera were stolen, so I borrowed most images from Flickr.
Kuelap Peru: Pre-Inca Ruins
Kuelap is touted in the guide books as the next Machu Picchu. The pre-Inca fortified citadel was abandoned by the Chachapoya people, the Inca, and the Spanish, and is now gradually being reclaimed by nature. Moss covered trees and bromeliads add to the mystery of the site, and in its isolation I wonder how and why the Chachapoya people chose this spot for their citadel. Our guide for the day, Jeffrey, explained that in Chachapoya culture, like the Inca, they chose to build high in the mountains in order to be closer to their gods. This particular mountain has a flat plateau, making it an easier option for building on, compared to the surrounding peaks. The Chachapoya were known as the Warriors of the Clouds, or Cloud People, and as the mist rolled in around us it was easy to see why.
How to Get to Kuelap Ruins
When I visited Kuelap in 2016, the best way to get to Kuelap was to take a tour from Chachapoyas. This involved a gruelling two hour drive around the mountainside to reach the fortress. Since then, there is a new cable car that opened which runs from Nuevo Tingo across the valley to Kuelap, which has significantly reduced journey time. Tours to Kuelap usually include transport from Chachapoyas to Nuevo Tingo, the cable car return ticket, entrance to Kuelap, a guided tour and lunch. Kuelap tours from Chachapoyas cost around 90 soles (just under $30 USD).
If you prefer not to take a tour, you can get a colectivo from Chachapoyas to Nuevo Tingo, then take a the cable car to Kuelap. This won’t actually save you much money once you have paid for the colectivo, cable car, entrance and lunch, so the easiest option is to take a tour. If you are very adventurous you could forget the cable car altogether and hike to Kuelap; ask your hostel or hotel in Chachapoyas for directions to the trail.
Surrounded by a huge wall, we entered Kuelap through a narrow passageway, built to allow just one person to pass through, and acting as an excellent defence against potential intruders. We walked around Kuelap, discovering patterned brickwork in remnants of buildings, and carvings in the stones. Kuelap is believed to have been built between the sixth and sixteenth centuries, with the earlier estimates making it three times older than Machu Picchu.
Although Kuelap lacks the ‘wow’ factor of Machu Picchu, as you don’t get an overall view of the site, the fact that not many people visit made it just as special for me. However, this looks set to change, with a new cable car built to replace the current 2-hour drive from Chachapoyas. Construction on the cable car had just begun when I visited, and was completed last year. Although beneficial for those working at Kuelap, I can’t help but feel that the site will lose some of its charm and mystery as more tourists arrive. I would love to go back and see how it has changed!
Exploring Chachapoyas: Gocta Waterfall
Kuelap isn’t the only place worth visiting from Chachapoyas. La Catarata de Gocta was once considered the 2rd highest waterfall in the world, although now resting in 15th place. Relatively unknown, the falls are nestled among lush rainforest, clouds and green mountains. Like most things worth visiting, Gocta Waterfall wasn’t easy to get to either – an hour’s drive from Chachapoyas plus a three-hour hike if you take a colectivo and get dropped off on the main road at the start of the path. Or an hour and 20 minutes’ drive from Chachapoyas plus a 2 hour hike if you take a taxi & moto-taxi for the first part of the hike.
There are day tours that leave almost every day, ask at your hostel for details. They are all pretty much the same price, around 25 soles when I was there, and include transport to Cocohuayco (the beginning of the 2 hour hike), a guide, and transport back. I had met a Spanish girl, Lourdes, at the hostel the previous day, and we decided to skip the tour and go it alone. Our choice wasn’t really due to money (we only saved 10 soles doing it independently), it was more to get away from a tour and do things at our own pace.
From reading Tripadvisor reviews I expected a difficult hike in muddy, wet conditions. It was dry when we set out, but as is the norm during rainy season, around 12pm the clouds rolled in and the rain began. We took a colectivo mini bus for 5 soles from Chachapoyas terminal towards Baguas, and hopped off at the start of the trail to the falls. Then we had the option of a moto-taxi up the hill to the town of Cocahuayco, or a hike up of about an hour. Feeling spritely, and unwilling to shell out another 5 soles each for the moto-taxi, we chose to hike, and set off up the hill. With the sunshine and humidity, we were soon sweating, but the route wasn’t difficult – we simply followed the dirt track as it wound around the mountainside, gradually climbing towards the little town.
The scenery was spectacular, and we saw plenty of birds and butterflies to keep us motivated, but y the time we reached the top I was tired, and would probably suggest paying the 5 soles. But, if you’re fit, and enjoy hiking, you may as well crack on and hike up. At Cocahuayco you can hire horses to take you half way to the waterfall, but it’s not really necessary – especially if you have done any hiking on the Inca trail, Colca Canyon or in Huaraz, as this route is easier than all those.
The path is well cared for; a little muddy in places but seems to be much improved from previous Tripadvisor comments, with new steps in place, and an obvious route to follow. At the beginning we asked a couple of locals the way, then there was just one path to follow. It was a long hike, but in the distance we could see the waterfall getting closer. Other falls splashed down the mountainside across the valley, but none as spectacular as Gocta itself. It is possible to descend to the bottom & sometimes swim there, but when we arrived the path was flooded so we couldn’t go any further.
On the return trip, colectivos weren’t as easy to come by, so if you do choose to go it alone, ask around in Cocohuayco to see if the tour bus drivers have space for you to catch a ride back to Chachapoyas, or you could find yourselves stranded as we did. The tour buses normally hang around the restaurants in the square at Cocohuayco, or see if you can get a lift with any car or truck in the square. The next option is to take a moto-taxi down the hill to the main road, and then take a colectivo back to town if you can get one. We chose the latter, and waited a long time for a colectivo – some full ones passed us, others seemed to ignore our waves. We started flagging down any passing vehicle and managed to hitch with a kind Peruvian who felt compelled to stop and rescue two damsels in distress!
Wilfredo turned out to be great company; a slightly erratic driver by UK standards but he got us back to Chachapoyas safe and sound and in super quick time. He refused to take any payment, so we offered to buy him a beer later to say thank you. In the end, we skipped the beer and went straight for shots! A local speciality is fermenting various fruits to create different liqueurs. We went to a bar and ordered a selection of shots to try. The waiter brought us one of each flavour, so we dutifully tried them all, some nicer than others. My personal favourite was mora (blackberry) which would have gone very nicely with a gin and tonic!
Other Things to Do in Chachapoyas
Aside from Kuelap & Gocta, other nearby attractions worth checking out include the Revash Mausoleum, the Karajia Sarcophagi (where Chachapoya mummies were found), and Quiocta caves. There are Chachapoyas tours available on Tripadvisor, or ask your hostel for more information.
Where to Stay in Chachapoyas
There are several options for hostels and hotels in Chachapoyas. I stayed at Chachapoyas Backpackers, which was clean, safe & offered all the tours I was thinking of doing.
I enjoyed my time in Chachapoyas; it wasn’t easy to get to but definitely worth the effort to learn more about Kuelap and and another Peruvian culture aside from the Inca. And there are fewer tourists there than elsewhere, which only adds to its charm for me! Have you been to Chachapoyas? Is there anywhere else you would recommend?
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